Finally arrived in the far south of Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh City, practically everyone still calls it Saigon and it is not the large, polluted, overwhelming Asian mayhem that everyone makes it out to be. Or maybe that’s me coming from a post Mumbai/Delhi/Kolkata perspective. Still the tourist area is a collection of small, easily navigable streets with plenty of cute street side cafes, bars, travel agents and guest houses and a million shops selling photocopied Lonely Planets, Nick Hornby novels, fake DVDs and Good Morning Vietnam t-shirts. For our last day together before he headed to Cambodia I dragged James into town to see the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum.
Once we got into the centre of the city the traffic did get noticeably crazier, there are just so many motorbikes, it is as if the whole place moves, breathes and pulses on two wheels and they carry anything and everything on the back of those wheels. James decided it was time for some comedy photos in front of the rows of waiting cyclists at the traffic lights. Comedy photo but it did very nearly end in tears!
Reunification Palace is like stepping back in time. It was built in the 1960s and was home and administration centre for the somewhat short-lived presidents of the Southern Republic of Vietnam before in 1975 the Communist troops from the North famously rode down the gates in two tanks and took control of the country. Now the rooms are immaculately preserved (and still sometimes used for visiting dignitaries) in a kind of 1970s time warp with their retro furniture, old fashioned bars, conference rooms and banquet halls. There are also two floors of bunkers beneath the palace with the old maps showing the allied and VC unit positions during the Vietnam war and rows of round dialed beige plastic telephones.
The War Remnants Museum is interesting but harrowing in places. It basically portrays a heavily Vietnamese sided account (obviously) of the Vietnam War in photographs and war relics, but mainly told through the pictures and interestingly most of the pictures were taken by American War Photographers. It definitely manages to show a no holds barred, warts-and-all portrayal of war, from the pictures of the American soldiers crawling through mud in the torrential rain, pictures of women screaming as rifle butts are pressed up against their cheeks, a solider holding up the remains of a farmer who has stood on a mine; his head, shoulder and arm hanging down while the rest of his body lies in parts around the ground. I sometimes think that anyone who ever comes into a position where they have huge political or military power should have to sit through photos like these to understand the possible ramification of their decisions.
This evening we met up with Mika and Mary who were on our Halong Bay trip and who James was hanging out with in Nha Trang. Tomorrow James heads to Phnom Pehn and the three of us are going to try and get ourselves across to Phu Quoc island by local transport, a something they try very hard to keep you away from in Vietnam, could be interesting!